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October 17, 2017

Catalan separatism has its martyrs

Shock news that couldn't shock anyone at this point in the escalation of the Catalan crisis: a Spanish judge has jailed on sedition charges, pre-emptively and without bail, the heads of the two major Catalan separatist grass-roots organisations: Jordi Sánchez of the Catalan National Assembly ANC, and Jordi Cuixart of Ómnium Cultural. That this didn't come as a surprise to anyone is underscored by the fact that at least Cuixart had left a pre-recorded video to be released in just this eventuality - it's not obvious whether Sanchez' video was pre-recorded. This doesn't mean that the judge's decision doesn't come at an awkward time, or that it doesn't make the political situation even more tense and prone to accidents. The question of due process is one that we're certain will make it all the way to the European court of human rights years from now. 

The timing couldn't be more awkward. As we reported yesterday Catalan regional premier Carles Puigdemont failed to respond with a simple yes/no answer to the question whether independence had been declared at the Catalan parliament on Tuesday last week, as the Spanish government had explicitly required. Mariano Rajoy responded with a reminder that the Catalan government has until Thursday at 10am to go back to the fold of the Spanish constitution, or else. At this point, the odds of Puigdemont backing down are nil. So, else it is. Next week the Spanish senate will debate and, in all likelihood, authorise the Spanish government to take as-yet unspecified measures to ensure the Catalan regional government complies with the constitution, under Article 155 of it. The only open question is whether Puigdemont will deign appear before the relevant Senate committee to make his government's case. 

At the same time that the judge jailed the leaders of ANC and Ómnium, she refused the state prosecutor's request to jail the head of the Catalan police Josep Lluis Trapero and his deputy, also on sedition charges. Instead, she withheld their passports and set fortnightly court appearances. 

The charges of sedition on which the two Jordis - as they are beginning to be called - were jailed are quite specific. They are not generically for organising separatist demonstrations, but for the demonstrations in front of Catalan government buildings on September 20 and 21, which hindered court-ordered searches in relation with the organisation of the October 1st independence vote that the Spanish constitutional court had previously voided. In what we called a watershed moment for the Catalan crisis at the time, sixteen Catalan government officials were arrested on the morning of September 20 in connection with the searches. Some of them were held for the 72 hours that the law allows. When the news of the arrests broke, the ANC and Ómnium called for people to gather around the government buildings. Superficially this meets the definition of sedition (Art 544) in Spain's criminal code (our translation): 

"to rise publicly an tumultuously to prevent, by force or outside legal means, the application of the laws, or to prevent any authority, public institution or public servant the legitimate exercise of their function or the fulfillment of their agreements or of administrative or judicial decisions"

In a Politikon blog on this situation, Roger Senserrich writes that the charge of sedition could have easily been avoided by demonstrating a block away from the buildings being searched. A spontaneous gathering is at most an unauthorised demonstration which carries a simple fine. But yesterday's resolution by the judge highlights that the court official overseeing one of the searches had to leave the building disguised among the crowd. Also that at least on one occasion Ómnium sent a WhatsApp message calling on people to gatherings to "stop the Guardia Civil".

Senserrich predicts that the Spanish government will end up applying Art 155, which will be litigated for years all the way to the European courts. This is likely to include an attempt by a provisional regional administration to call snap regional elections. According to Vozpópuli, the Spanish government itself is not sure of the legality of this, and is afraid it might also be contested in the European courts. If the Spanish government cannot force early elections in Catalonia, the next elections are scheduled for the autumn of 2019. Senserrich expects new regional elections to return a substantially identical regional parliament, as none of this will change anyone's mind and Catalan voters are split down the middle.

The one prediction nobody dares to make - Senserrich included - is an actual violent outbreak. We share the wishful thinking that it won't come to that.

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October 17, 2017

European Parliament agrees to restrict posted workers

The employment committee of the European Parliament voted in favour of a proposal by the European Commission to stop wage discrimination between workers - irrespective of whether they are nationally employed or posted. The Commission said respect of this rule was necessary for the internal market to work efficiently. The purpose of this rule is to stop central and east European member states sending workers to the west to undercut local labour markets. The principle is that wages of the guest state are to be respected, not of the state the workers come from. The European Parliament has a useful infographic about this:

The Committee has also accepted the proposals to cap the time for posted workers to two years. The reason is that posted workers get local wages, but don’t have to pay local social security. The MEPs, however, accept that there can be reasoned exceptions to the rule. Member states and regions can furthermore introduce specially negotiated rules at their level.

As FAZ notes, these are big changes, supported strongly by Emmanuel Macron. But the CDU is alarmed. The article quotes a CDU MEP as calling the proposed changes a system change, and warning about legal chaos, as it is far from clear who enforces the new rules.

The issue now goes to the Council, which may discuss the issue at a meeting of labour ministers next Monday. The rules will only become effective if both sides agree. Macron wants even tougher rules - a maximum cap of twelve months - while others do not agree to the principle of equal wages for equal work. 

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October 17, 2017

Foreign policy will be key in Austrian coalition talks

Der Standard reports that the SPÖ is not giving up on its fight to form the next government - together with the FPÖ this time. Most observers consider such an outcome unlikely, but the alternative of a government of the centre-right ÖVP and the FPÖ is far from certain. The active pursuit of a coalition option is backed by the majority of the SPÖ’s high command. Since the SPÖ is marginally ahead of the FPÖ - the gap is small but big enough to not be altered by the postal votes - Christian Kern would remain chancellor if SPÖ and FPÖ were to strike a deal. The SPÖ would not have accepted a coalition if the FPÖ had ended up as the stronger party.

Among the many election analyses, the one we liked the best was from the Kaffeeklatsch blog in the Economist. We presume it is written by the paper’s Austria correspondent, who offers a good insight into the difficulties that now lie ahead for Sebastian Kurz, the ÖVP leader and foreign minister. Everybody expects Kurz to form a coalition with the FPÖ, but there are serious obstacles. Of the ones listed, the biggest is over foreign policy. The FPÖ is still reeling from the experience of its coalition with Wolfgang Schüssel almost twenty years ago, which ended in an electoral defeat. Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPÖ leader, is expected to play hard-to-get and drive up his price. He will claim both the interior and justice ministries, but also the foreign ministry, a job which Norbert Hofer - the party’s presidential candidate - is said to be keen on. 

But Kurz wants to retain the grip over foreign policy himself, also in view of the country’s EU presidency next year. The outcome of this battle may well forge the political direction the country will take in the future or, as the blog put it, it will determine whether Austria tilts more eastward, away from Germany and towards the Visegrad countries.

The blog also mentioned another challenge. Austria is one of the most corporatist countries in the world. If Kurz wants to implement the reforms he promised, he will need to confront a lot of vested interests in the country and in his party, since the two are often interwoven.

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